Sunday, 28 November 2010

From the archive: "Alfie"

In some ways, Alfie was a curious film to have emerged from 1960s London: a case study masquerading as a swinging caper, with a rich, deep core of human sadness and misery beneath its jazzy score. On the surface, it's a bedroom romp about a Cockney wideboy, not so far removed from the Confessions... films to come; but pull back the covers even just a little, and what we see is pure kitchen sink: an unsparing critique of masculinity at its most self-centred and macho, and a drama that can only wind up with a visit from the backstreet abortionist in a grotty room at the top. The nominal hero Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine) is a dead-eyed chauvinist in a rugby-club blazer and tie, schmoozing any woman he wants into bed with false promises, then using emotional manipulation to get out of any subsequent commitments.

Alfie opens the film enjoying a cushy little number with nice-but-dim Gilda (Julia Foster), who bears his child, but then spends the rest of the first half behaving horrendously towards her, and the second half stomping all over a series of other women's hopes and dreams like some priapic Godzilla. Lewis Gilbert, doing a fine job of opening out the original stage play, directs gentle rhythms and a London-in-summertime vibe into it, but as a film, it could hardly be any chillier or unpredictable, its very syntax used to recount lurid or cruel jokes: take the brutal cut from Alfie, in his chauffeur's get-up, telling hitchhiker Jane Asher "you'll have a great little life with me" to the shot of Asher on her knees, scrubbing the floor of her man's squalid bachelor pad.

Just as his flatmate Terence Stamp went off to work with Pasolini during this period, so too Caine was showing signs of wanting to challenge himself: those raised on the actor's sloppy 70s and 80s work may be surprised by just how good he is here as a control freak ("I always weight 12 stone six") with an infuriating habit of referring to the opposite sex as "it". This is a performance that has to mislead the audience, much as Alfie misleads his conquests: by keeping up a show of bravado, even as he's being poked and prodded by a lady doctor (a young Eleanor Bron) who diagnoses Alfie with clouds around his lungs (and not, surprisingly, his heart) we're led into believing this will be the usual tale of the invincible who realises he's mortal. Except that Alfie never learns a thing, which is why he ends up with only questions ("What's it all about?") back where he started, running with the dogs. Pro-choice and wise to the hypocrisies of philanderers, this may be the most feminist-seeming movie ever made by men: it didn't need remaking by Charles Shyer with Jude Law, because it had already been remade by Catherine Breillat with Rocco Siffredi.

(April 2008)

Alfie screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 1.40am.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of November 19-21, 2010:

1 (new) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (12A) **
2 (1) Due Date (15)
3 (3) Despicable Me (U)
4 (2) Skyline (15) ***
5 (4) Jackass 3D (18) **
6 (6) RED (12A)
7 (9) Alpha and Omega (U)
8 (new) Guzaarish (12A) [above]
9 (7) The Social Network (12A) ****
10 (10) Another Year (12A) ****

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2. Chico & Rita
3. A Day in the Life - Four Portraits of Post-War Britain
4. Another Year
5. Waiting for "Superman"


Top Ten DVD rentals
:

1 (4) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
2 (new) Toy Story 3 (U) ****
3 (9) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
4 (1) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
5 (2) Disney's A Christmas Carol (PG) **
6 (3) Heartbreaker (PG) **
7 (5) The Blind Side (12) **
8 (6) The Ghost (15) **
9 (8) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
10 (re) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. A Town Called Panic
2. Leaving
3. Splice
4. Toy Story 3
5. How to Train Your Dragon


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Night of the Demon (Saturday, BBC2, 1am)
2. Gattaca (Sunday, five, 2.25pm)
3. Downfall (Saturday, C4, 1.30am)
4. Alfie (Monday, C4, 1.40am)
5. Corpse Bride (Saturday, ITV1, 2.50pm)

Yo, teach: "Waiting for "Superman""

A documentary on the failings of the U.S. education system? So what, you might say, we've got university occupations and homework of our own to be getting on with. To his credit, Davis Guggenheim goes at the topic from a variety of angles in his new film Waiting For "Superman". The director's 2001 documentary The First Year concerned itself with rookie teachers, and he's kept his cameras trained on the schools featured for much of the past decade; his findings are here backed up by interviews with pupils who demonstrate a mixed range of abilities, from the fiercely ambitious (pre-teen Daisy, who's already been in contact with her college of choice) to the impoverished and struggling; he's also sought out educators who've spent their careers trying to make a difference within a generally indifferent system.

The film takes as its starting point the bipartisan No Child Left Behind act signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, with the aim of ensuring 100% literacy and numeracy rates among America's youth by the year 2012. With two years to go, most states are topping out at 35%, and there are signs the kids are only lagging further behind the rest of the world in other key subjects. Public schools have been tainted with the tag of "failure factories", the lottery system used to determine which students receive places at the better schools appearing simultaneously fair (in terms of it being the only just way of allocating places) and grossly unfair on those whose numbers don't come up, a sign of exactly how hit-and-miss education policy has become.

A complex issue, then, and the film has a lot of information to disseminate over its two hours: on funding, on bureaucratic structures, on the arcane business of employment law. We learn that, desperate to recruit educators of whatever skillset, schools have begun to offer tenure, an extension of the collegiate idea of a job for life, as routine to new, as yet untested employees - the concept fiercely protected by teachers' unions, who continue to defend their clients against charges of sexual misconduct and professional incompetence while ensuring those in the dock receive full pay for the (often lengthy) duration of each hearing. (In seeking to lend its thesis an obvious villain, the film doesn't really acknowledge that this kind of protection has always been the unions' job, but the idea of a structure built with the needs of adults rather than children in mind seeps through nevertheless.)

Guggenheim - returning to crusading, An Inconvenient Truth form after slacking off among rockstars for last year's It Might Get Loud - mounts his case in engaged, Michael Moore-like fashion, using clips from The Simpsons, School of Rock, Welcome Back, Kotter and several vintage public information films to underline his points; it's an eminently accessible watch. By way of cutting through the red tape and institutionalised gloom, Waiting for "Superman" identifies a couple of real-life heroes, who've come to shake things up at a localised level, or otherwise set up their own schools altogether.

These are Geoffrey Canada, a teacher-turned-administrator who learned his trade in one of Harlem's toughest neighborhoods, and whose charter school program continues to go from strength to strength to strength, turning back-of-the-class stragglers into busy-minded college material; and Michelle Rhee, a plucky outsider who - in her role as schools administrator for Washington D.C. - shut down several of the failure factories (to widespread outcry) and got those public schools remaining to function more efficiently. The point Guggenheim is making is that these individuals aren't Supermen, but regular civil servants who have only so many hours in the day (and little outside support) to effectuate much-needed change. Their successes are the exception rather than the rule - you can see as much from the closing lottery sequence, where the despairing faces of unlucky students and families outnumber the joy of the chosen few by a factor of at least four to one.

The thought strikes you, halfway through Waiting for "Superman", that America has problems enough right now - political, economic, environmental - but that education should, as ever, find its way to the top of the pile, because they'll need the best and brightest minds to figure these other problems out, and for that, they'll need the best and brightest teaching. Guggenheim's contribution to the debate is a decent film, one you hope will make a difference to the lives of those millions of children whose futures are at stake, but a necessarily specific one - it may be down to British teachers and administrators, beset as they are with Ofsted reports and a hundred other problems of their own right now, to decide the film's ultimate relevancy.

Waiting for "Superman" is on selected release.

"London Boulevard" (The Scotsman 26/11/10)

London Boulevard (18) ***
Directed by: William Monahan
Starring: Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone

The directorial debut of The Departed scribe William Monahan is an odd one: an adaptation of a Ken Bruen crime novel – inspired by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard – which plays on screen like an upmarket, Rilke-quoting version of every other film Danny Dyer has been involved with. Narrative thrust is supposed to be provided by the growing relationship between ex-con Mitchell (Farrell) and a reclusive, depressive actress – middle-aged and vampish in the book, Keira Knightley here – except there’s almost as many characters crammed into its 104 minutes as The Departed had in 150.

On they come, giving it their best Mockney: everyone from Anna Friel as Mitchell’s nympho sister to a twitchy Ben Chaplin as the old cohort whose involvement with mob boss Winstone makes our hero’s fresh start an impossibility. Against them, Farrell exudes focused, low-key cool in sharp suits, while Monahan locates a pallid, needy strangeness in Knightley that makes one regret the manner in which she comes to be crowded out. The faux-Scorsese soundtrack’s overdone, and matters get generic as Mitchell reverts to type, but it’s a mostly diverting, stylishly shot scramble: this year’s Lucky Number Slevin, if you will.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The End: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"

"Which creature was sitting in the corner of my office the first time Harry Potter visited me?" The question is asked by David Thewlis's Remus Lupin to establish whether Harry Potter is who he says he is as the war against the dark forces in J.K. Rowling's universe steps up, but it might equally be used to determine whether cinemagoers are in or out, at this late stage in proceedings. Half an hour into HP7a - the first part of the final instalment - and it's become evident the series has descended into the interminable fans-only trivia and juvenilia it has always threatened to. This is supposed to be the big climax; instead, we're offered a series of footnotes. The tale of Beedle the Bard (copies still available in all good bookshops); the revelation of where Dobby the House Elf has been hiding all these years; a diversion to the scene of Potter Sr.'s final stand. Rowling - and the producers, and director David Yates, taking a third crack at the franchise - is dotting the is and crossing the ts and making sure everybody's on the same page here, no matter we're supposed to be watching a film.

I had a grudging respect for the previous instalment, 2009's Half-Blood Prince, for the manner in which it appeared to overcome its production difficulties to arrive at the functionality that has been the mark of the better entries in this series; it was during this penultimate film - first intended for release in 3D, released in 2D, and sometimes straining to attain anything like monodimensionality - that my patience snapped and I threw in the towel altogether. It's a double shame: firstly, as I haven't read the books - and thus have the suspense advantage of not knowing who lives and dies - and secondly as Deathly Hallows would appear to be the one where Rowling finally had the confidence to abandon the comforting and predictable formula that underpinned previous instalments: that seasonal structure of suburbia-train-Hogwarts, then arsing around for a while until an actual plot can be happened across. The school that has sought to nurture and protect our heroes for so long is very definitely out: Ron, Harry and Hermione are on the run from the word go, pursued by Voldemort and his forces, and on paper at least, everything seems to be up for grabs.

On celluloid, however, it's a different matter. You have to wonder how many Potter films Yates - now, presumably (and absurdly), the most bankable director in the world - would have to make before he found anything like a satisfying rhythm in this material: 7a is a feature that hops, but mostly plods, between set-pieces in which it's not always clear why we're here or what, precisely, is at stake. In Yates's defence, it's not entirely his fault: this one is plainly the worst adaptation of a Potter book yet, as though over-qualified screenwriter Steve Kloves had himself thrown in the towel. If you are going to have your characters hyperventilate on a quest for something or someone known as a "whorecrux", then sooner or later you are going to have to explain what (or who) the damn things are to that percentage of viewers (however small) who haven't read the books. Similarly, having somebody rush in to tell us characters we've only just been introduced to have died off-screen, simply to raise the narrative stakes (or to avoid shooting effects-heavy death scenes), will always seem like a dreadful cheat.

Of course, you could continue to praise the consistently high standard of production design, and the continuing project to tick off those few British character actors who haven't as yet appeared in a Potter film: here, Peter Mullan (hopefully opening up a line of credit for future directorial outings), Rhys Ifans, John Hurt and, most unexpectedly, Graham Duff - the polymorphously perverse Brian from TV's Ideal - as one of Voldemort's Death Eaters. But in Deathly Hallows' two-plus hours, there are precisely two amazing effects: one the work of computers, the other I can't even begin to explain, both seeming to stand in some way for the failings and limitations of the whole.

The pixellated wonder is spent early on, as Brendan Gleeson's "Mad Eye" Moodie transforms several volunteers into replica Harrys, in order to allow the real thing to make his escape from the Dementors. The other wow, the inexplicable one, is how the series' three lead performers - now young adults, as their groomed and glamorous appearance at each passing premiere has only come to demonstrate - have continued to retain on screen a convincing patina of adolescence. Whatever spell has been cast on them - juvenilia perpetuum? - it's started to rub off on their elders, too. To penetrate the darkened halls of the Ministry of Magic - a no-fly zone for boy wizards - Ron, Harry and Hermione are obliged to assume the form of adults (Hermione's clearly inhabiting Sophie Thompson: another tick) who nonetheless speak with the voices of Messrs. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint.

The grown-ups in Deathly Hallows - and in this, we'll include the man behind the camera, allowed to exhibit no discernible personality of his own - are employed as hollow dummies, mere conduits for childish whims; this particular form of ventriloquism is eerily similar to the manner in which these books have been brought to the screen. The film's vision of terrifying conformity - the aforementioned Ministry, with its rows of desk-bound clerks Xeroxing Mudblood propaganda documents - is as nothing set against the terrifying conformism of the film itself. Actors mouth their lines; directors are forbidden from imposing themselves. Everyone bows before Harry Potter, even poor Dobby, who's no sooner announced himself a "free Elf" than ended up a sacrificial lamb. (Half-Blood Prince at least drew towards its close with the death of a human being; Deathly Hallows asks us to mourn for a computer effect, and heaven knows how many more of those this franchise has left.)

It's too late for a corrective, of course - the film has already taken over the multiplexes and invaded the global consciousness - but we might at least give pause to wonder who, save the Warner Bros. accountants, is actually winning this bloody battle. The first Potter movie, Philosopher's Stone, emerged in late 2001, mere months after the most devastating attack on Western values suffered in our lifetime, and it seems likely the series will come to an end at a moment of acute financial depression. Sure, the films have provided a certain bright-eyed, bushy-tailed distraction over the decade, but nothing really appears to have changed for the better in that period, in both Rowling's fictional and our real worlds. As we leave Deathly Hallows Part 1, everybody's still running around with their wands in their hands, and the saga looks no closer to reaching a happy or conclusive ending - there's a metaphor for something there, I'm sure. Part 2 will follow in July 2011, and doubtless finance Warners' next round of remakes and comic-book adaptations, yet this franchise badly needed to end here. Plainly put, we all need to grow up now.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is showing nationwide.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of November 12-14, 2010:

1 (1) Due Date (15)
2 (new) Skyline (15) ***
3 (3) Despicable Me (U)
4 (2) Jackass 3D (18) **
5 (4) Saw 3D (18)
6 (6) RED (12A)
7 (7) The Social Network (12A) ****
8 (5) Paranormal Activity 2 (15)
9 (13) Alpha and Omega (U)
10 (9) Another Year (12A) ****

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2. Chico & Rita
3. A Day in the Life - Four Portraits of Post-War Britain
4. Another Year
5. Peeping Tom [above]


Top Ten DVD rentals
:

1 (1) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
2 (8) Disney's A Christmas Carol (PG) **
3 (7) Heartbreaker (PG) **
4 (new) The Karate Kid (PG) ***
5 (2) The Blind Side (12) **
6 (6) The Ghost (15) **
7 (3) Killers (12) **
8 (5) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
9 (new) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
10 (4) Brooklyn's Finest (18) **

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. A Town Called Panic
2. Toy Story 3
3. How to Train Your Dragon
4. Wild Grass
5. Collapse


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Speed (Sunday, five, 9pm)
2. The Lonely Guy (Sunday, BBC1, 11.55pm)
3. JFK (Sunday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
4. The African Queen (Friday, C4, 1.25pm)
5. Into the Wild (Saturday, C4, 11.15pm)

(With - for obvious reasons - a big hand for Irina Palm (Friday, BBC2, 11.50pm) as it makes its terrestrial debut.)

Havana nights: "Chico & Rita"

This is such an exceptional period for animation - in terms of both the artistry being demonstrated across all forms of the medium, and the audience response to it - that distributors are coming to take commendable chances on the features they release theatrically. Chico & Rita, a collaboration between the Spanish director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), illustrator Javier Mariscal and music producer Tono Errando, is as close to a fully-fledged musical as the form has come since the golden age of Disney - but also encompasses nudity, mild drug use (very mild, as it turns out: oregano masquerading as grass), lingering regret and seemingly irreparable heartbreak. We can't say we haven't been primed, because effectively the film does for the Havana and New York of the 1940s and 50s what August's The Illusionist did for the Edinburgh of a slightly later period, setting out a love story with an eye for pop-cultural detail (what was on the Wurlitzer jukeboxes of the mid-50s, say) every bit as sound as its grasp on the ways of the human heart.

It's in pre-Revolutionary Cuba that the characters of the title first meet. He's a pianist with wandering hands; she's the singer with whom he comes to form a partnership of sorts. On stage, the two are an ideal match; it's off it - in those nights between gigs - where his womanising starts to drive a wedge between them. As the years pass, and the pair come and go like so many ships in the night, both will come to be seduced by America, but this time, they cross paths on foreign soil, as outsiders, and while we assume their story can't end well - framed, as it is, as the memory of the ageing Chico as he drinks alone in his Havana bolthole and hears all his old standards on the radio - it has, much like life itself in fact, more than a few surprises up its sleeve.

In animation terms, the film's closest relative may actually be 2008's no less adult Waltz with Bashir, albeit with the pen wielded to evoke bittersweet pleasures above deep psychic trauma: certain sequences have a fluid, almost rotoscoped quality, which proves especially effective as the lovers' bodies first merge, though a mid-film reverie employs simple, retro-tinged cartoonery to convey the allure of the New World, with particular reference to the players of On the Town and Casablanca. Between them, the credited directors conjure a heady, intoxicating atmosphere: one of music, cigar smoke, the night and the sway of a departing woman's behind. (It is, one should say, a very male, deeply romantic vision: Rita, fiery and full-lipped, may be the sexiest animated creation since Jessica Rabbit, although one could argue even the filmmakers betray her in the later stages, leaving her to struggle on in Hollywood and electing to follow Chico's more meandering path.)

Above all else, though, it's the music that drives the action, from the pianist's debut fumble through Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" (you wonder how anyone would spot the bum notes) to an encounter with Charlie Parker in a Manhattan jazz bar. This music brings people together, and consoles them when they grow apart; it's a way of measuring out time, and the space between us. (Chico's biggest betrayal isn't his various infidelities, but his decision to erase Rita's name from the title of the track he'd composed for her.) From the rap blasting out on a latter-day Havana streetcorner to the salsa rhythms of a Vegas ballroom, Trueba and Errando keep up their tempo to keep us close to the protagonists' bruised yet beating hearts, but it's also a film of terrific, affecting nuance, suggesting both the weight of life experience behind it and something more specifically cinematic: that, as Pixar's Up first proposed, animation may just be better suited to conveying the everyday tragedy of time passing than the latex make-up and bad wigs of so many live-action features.

Chico & Rita opens in selected cinemas tomorrow.

Mysteries of the forest: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"

The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul first came to prominence in the West with a pair of shapeshifting eco-fables that were utterly unlike anything else around, and as lyrical as the filmmaker's multisyllabic nomenclature. 2004's Tropical Malady began as a gay forest romance, then morphed into something else entirely, to beguiling effect; 2006's Syndromes and a Century, which I must confess I didn't see, baffled and stimulated those who did in equal measure. Now we have Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which stands as a summation of Weerasethakul's career thus far - and took home the Palme d'Or from this year's Cannes festival. In Weerasethakul's hands, that gong may well have warped en route back to Nabua into a golden monkey or tiger - but it was nothing if not wholly deserved.

The gentle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), ailing with terminal kidney problems, is visited at his farmland retreat by his sister-in-law and her twentysomething offspring; the guests settle in while their host undergoes dialysis and makes plans for his eventual death. One night at dinner, the need to set extra places for dinner becomes evident, when the ghost of Boonmee's late wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) suddenly materialises out of nowhere: a jolting sequence apparently realised using not CGI, but old-fashioned movie trickery. Even more joltingly, moments later there appears the spirit of Boonmee's dead son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who just so happens to have come back in hulking, hairy simian form.

Oddly enough, no-one runs screaming from the room, and conversation around the table continues in much the same measured vein - and this isn't even the half of it: just wait until you see the casually brilliant mid-film interlude - cued by a dream Boonmee is having, stretched out in a hammock - in which a princess mates with a talking catfish beneath a foaming waterfall, a sequence at once reminiscent of Elizabeth Berkley's slitherings atop Kyle MacLachlan in the swimming pool in Showgirls, and quite the most uncannily beautiful stretch of cinema you're likely to see all year. Frankly, dear reader, there are more things in this film than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

The mystic, animist streak clearly marks Uncle Boonmee... as Far Eastern, but it nonetheless casts its spell wide, and stretches its tendrils in every which direction. Not all the film's interlopers are supernatural: Weerasethakul's direction settles into near-documentary rhythms whenever it settles upon the Laotian migrants who've arrived to work on Boonmee's farm, and indeed the farmer seems quite haunted enough already by his participation in an earlier conflict between the two nations - the ghosts following him around here are more psychic than visible.

Yet playing out to a soundtrack of gently chirruping insects, the midsection provides a soothing, contemplative portrait of one man's rural idyll: as Boonmee asks of his (human) visitors, "Why would you want to return to that cramped apartment in that city from hell?" Boonmee... is thus fantasy in more than one sense - the final sequence, which seeks to preserve rather than dispel the film's many mysteries, shifts us forward into a contemporary urban environment that appears hopelessly sterile and lifeless when set against what's gone before, prompting the characters into a marvellously shot and edited out-of-body experience. (It's too ambiguous for one to be entirely certain, but Weerasethakul may well be making a point about the general disconnection of city-dwellers from their surrounds.)

Though it draws the majority of its effects from the natural world - shooting at a particular hour of the day or night, staring intently at tangled vines or enigmatic rock formations - Uncle Boonmee... is a rare arthouse movie to deserve plaudits for its make-up and design: the cowled, jet-black, red-eyed monkey ghosts [see photo above] are the spookiest creations to have been observed on screen for many a year - and oddly credible in their behaviour, too, distinct from the Wolf Men/Chewbacca clones you half-expect them to be, and in fact (like the film itself) probably only one quantum leap or two away from the apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet Weerasethakul has branched out (the forest floor imagery is deliberate) into video installation art in the past few years, and he's grown exquisitely attuned to the elements of light, climate and time, his camera able now to suggest whole worlds and dimensions both within and beyond a crop of jungle foliage or a placid rockpool.

Throughout Uncle Boonmee..., there is the thrilling sense of a filmmaker striving to put real, appreciable art back into the cinema, which may explain why that Palme d'Or sits so comfortably upon its shoulders. Yet it can also be approached and interpreted as so much more besides: a ghost story, a love story, a fairytale for grown-ups; a more honestly Buddhist film than Gaspar Noe's showy and self-involved Enter the Void; and in itself a statement of eye-opening faith in the power of the moving image as projected onto a blank wall. It is, finally, an event: a communion, a transformation, a gorgeous, glorious transmigration of souls. If you still believe in, or have ever had cause to doubt, the cinema's capacity for magic and wonder, you need to see this.

Uncle Boonmee... opens in selected cinemas tomorrow. An edited version of this review was published in Friday's Metro.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

During an idle moment in the early Harry Potter films, I began to wonder if these adaptations might mature alongside their demographic and performers, and that future instalments, brought to the screen by directors better schooled in the ways of the world, might arrive with 15 or even 18 certificates; after all, the audience of eight-year-olds who turned out for 2001's Philosopher's Stone would now be sixteen, and surely ready for what the BBFC deem violent scenes and moderate sex references. It hasn't happened: though the Potter films stepped up a level from PG to 12A with 2005's Goblet of Fire, it's stayed there ever since, the risk minimised by the succession of safe hands taking up the directorial reins.

In short, the franchise has found itself stuck in the terrible teens, and by all accounts, the last couple of years have been more terrible for this franchise than most: reports surfaced of disastrous test screenings, reshoots and a release date change for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which allowed Robert Pattinson, Potter cast-off and star of last winter's replacement tween-fave Twilight, to overtake Daniel Radcliffe as the unthreatening teen pin-up de nos jours. Certainly, the omens didn't look good: the poster shorthand HP6 makes the film sound like the latest in a particular line of photocopiers, although that wouldn't be entirely inapt for a series that has previously appeared content to Xerox whole pages and subplots from the sacred Rowling texts without modulation; audiences gathered globally to watch a book, rather than experience a film. (Compare any of those early films to the unfettered and immersive imagination on display in Coraline, and you can see the Potter films' limitations as movies.)

The resulting film remains choppy and disjointed, and dependent upon the prior knowledge that might smooth the cracks between its episodic chunks of plot, but it also forms tribute to the sporadic power of a particular kind of corporate thinking: a demonstration of how a reportedly failing industrial process could be turned round to arrive at a product that is wholly functional - no mean feat in a summer of cash-ins and rip-offs - and which even, in its closing stages, starts to attain the proportions of something rather distinctive and striking.

Perhaps it's the return of screenwriter Steve Kloves, absent from 2007's very ordinary Order of the Phoenix, who has some experience of compressing several hundred pages of Rowlingprose into a 150-page script, and whose track record as a writer-director (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Flesh and Bone) hints at an affinity with atmospheric, even adult material. Half-Blood Prince is a film of gathering storms and newly tempestuous hormones, beginning with the collapse of the Millennium Bridge, a rare excursion into the world beyond Hogwarts, and an early sign that lives will be at stake with all this magic flying around. There's plenty to set wands twitching elsewhere, too, not least an intensifying of relations between Rupert Grint's Ron and Emma Watson's Hermione, and the death of one key character: for the first time, our young wizard hero will get his nose bloodied and his feet wet.

Behind the camera, David Yates remains one of those safe pairs of hands mentioned earlier, although having him at the helm - rather than the American Chris Columbus, Mexico's Alfonso Cuaron, or the transatlantic wanderer Mike Newell - helps to underline the Englishness of the Potter world, which is one way of holding out against the homogenisation of culture these films represent. Together with the gifted cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (French, but we'll let it slide), Yates mines rich seams of atmosphere from quaint country villages in the dead of night, slide-rule rows of terraced housing, snow-covered moors on which another of Harry's classmates will meet a terrible fate.

The Hogwarts scenes continue to play to the traditional strengths of the British film industry, both in their attention to detail in production and costume design (here evident in everything from defaced textbooks to a deceased arachnid; special mention must go to the blinking lioness hat adorning Luna Lovegood's head at one point) and a certain idiosyncrasy of performance: the most animated element isn't the filigree effects work, but the endlessly contorting features of Jim Broadbent as sottish potions professor Horace Slughorn, who drinks to forget.

There's something honourable in the way the producers have so far resisted the use of American guest stars whose names might add a further $50m to the overseas box office, and these choice character parts - Alan Rickman's Snape, here realising his destiny; Michael Gambon's Dumbledore; Helena Bonham Carter, filthily gorgeous as Bellatrix Lestrange - make the Potter films infinitely preferable to the noisily inhuman robotics of the Transformers/Terminator movies; indeed, without them, Half-Blood Prince's denouement wouldn't assume the tragic weight it undoubtedly, and somewhat unexpectedly, does.

It's just the kids I worry for. In their very Englishness, the Potter films have become governed by an excess of discipline - it's perhaps why so many parents, trying to get their offspring to settle down at night, have taken these books to heart - at the expense of much mischief or spontaneity. The three young leads have now settled comfortably into these roles, and convince entirely as a gang with their own secrets and shorthand; the film's freshest moments find Grint and Radcliffe goofing about in corridors and train carriages, trying to get away with things the cramped plotting wouldn't usually allow.

More of this would be welcome in the final instalments, but there are ominous signs Ron, Harry and Hermione are growing up resigned to their own good behaviour. Casting her eye over the principals at an early stage in Half-Blood Prince, Maggie Smith's Professor McGonagall wonders out loud, "Why is it always you three?" Grint's response - "I've been asking myself the same question for six years" - is both an unusual instance of self-awareness for this series, and marked by the weariness of a young actor who can't quite believe he's still wearing school uniform this far into his career.

(July 2009)

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

The Harry Potter franchise has reached a difficult age. With five films in six years, it's grown up very quickly, and with this latest entry bearing the tagline "Join the Rebellion" and the now standard-issue 12A certificate, it's clear Harry's adventures are no longer intended as kids' stuff. At the end of the previous Potter film, I was driven to speculate which directors might be able to take the series in interesting directions. In the event of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we've ended up with the young Brit David Yates, whom you suspect has been chosen not for his success with the gritty C4 drama Sex Traffic, but because he's a television director making his first feature, and can therefore easily be reined in by the series' producers and the J.K. Rowling estate.

Yates does a reasonable job with the opening sequence, trying to convince us a graffiti-strewn underpass might exist in the same universe as an old school so, well, old-school as Hogwarts, but thereafter cedes to the prevailing house style, becoming another of the franchise's reliable pairs of hands. The best I can say about Order of the Phoenix is that it's a safe bet, which may not just be faint praise in a summer of unprecedented movie hype and similar levels of disappointment. With 95% of its likely audience having had some form of contact with the source book, it's safe to say I could probably omit a plot synopsis without leaving too many readers in the dark; let it suffice to note there's a somewhat ill-defined conspiracy, led by the Ministry of Magic's Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, all pink knitwear and kitten tchotchkes), to take down Hogwarts head Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

Phoenix wants to persuade us the stakes are higher this time round - Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and friends even have to sit their first exams - and certainly the mood is tetchier. Early scenes are full of in-fighting and backbiting: in the Hogwarts common room, where the pupils have started to listen to aptly named indie chancers The Ordinary Boys for some reason, that Irish kid who's a dead ringer for Wayne Rooney gives our hero a mouthful, while Harry is noticeably more irritable, complaining "I feel so angry, all the time". To compound this hormonal disquiet, love is in the air: Harry gets his first kiss, which caused all the girls in the screening I attended to gasp as one, and led all the boys to offer a collective "eww". Some things, it seems, never change.

Other elements have. The good news for cineastes is that Phoenix is the first Potter film not to bear a writing credit for Steve Kloves, hopefully a sign that Kloves is set to relaunch his own very promising directorial career. The bad news for everyone is that, in the hands of new screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, this doesn't feel like a very good adaptation; it's a rushed, scrambled attempt to condense 800-odd pages into two hours twenty minutes of screentime. (I have a sneaking admiration for Kloves for bailing on the task.) Goldenberg's screenplay throws away such potentially rich revelations as the discovery of Professor Snape (Alan Rickman)'s bullying at the hands of Potter senior, and certain characters (including Helena Bonham Carter's Bellatrix Lestrange) turn up out of nowhere before vanishing back there.

Over the last half-decade, Harry Potter has proved a cash cow for Warner Bros., and given the revenue they've generated, they'd be silly not to spend the money they have on Order of the Phoenix: on the superior effects work and spectacle, on bringing back all the (admittedly cheap, English) actors recruited to play the Hogwarts staff in previous instalments. Again, man of the match goes to Radcliffe: despite an alarmingly muscular upper body for someone playing a wizard supposedly in his mid-teens, the young star has developed a watchful quality welcome in a character showing signs of clairvoyance, and by way of respite in a film otherwise composed of hissy fits and big bangs.

Still, the overall experience is an unsatisfying one. For non-devotees of the books like myself, previous visits to Hogwarts have appeared overlong and naggingly literal - afraid to leave out just one of the audience's favourite scenes on the page - but with enjoyable moments and performances. This was the first Potter film where I grew convinced there must be a more interesting story going on at a neighbouring comprehensive. (A sidebar: there's an academic study to be written about the differing attitudes of those of us raised on Grange Hill and those being brought up on the softer, sealed off, less provocative world of J.K. Rowling; it might centre on how the two groups perceive Gary Oldman: the angry young man who tore up the screen in the 1980s, latterly recast as the benign, avuncular warlock Sirius Black.)

Still, quibbling about the direction of the Harry Potter films is pretty much on a par with moaning that nobody's done anything interesting with the Bond franchise: a futile railing against both public taste and market forces. By the time you read this review, Order of the Phoenix will have made enough money worldwide for its producers not to have to make any radical changes for the sixth film, and Rowling's new book will have been pre-ordered in such numbers that no-one will dare take any risks bringing Harry Potter 7.0 to the screen. This is the very model of a successful formula that's also not particularly compelling or distinctive; going to see a Harry Potter film has now become every bit as exciting as eating at Burger King. Any signs of life or dissent can be snuffed out with the news Yates has been signed up for the next film. At this point in time, what this franchise needs, if the magic isn't to be completely swamped by everyday corporate cowardice, isn't another safe pair of hands, but a palpable sense of threat; nothing so fleeting as a teenage rebellion, but a full-on insurrection in its ranks.

(July 2007)

Monday, 15 November 2010

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

You should, perhaps, be made aware I am overcoming some major personal prejudice to write this particular review. Increasingly, the experience of discussing the Harry Potter films is rather like what I think it must be like to write for What Car? magazine, in that the product under review is all technicality, with precious little scope for artistry. The Potter franchise is by now a well-oiled machine, calibrated for maximum money-making efficiency. Any changes to director or cast is the equivalent of trying on different nuts and bolts; it's the character of Potter, and J.K. Rowling's holier-than-holy source texts, devoured by children, furtively enjoyed by grown-ups on trains, which provide the engine. (Those of us who object, or simply don't care, are invited to get on our bikes.)

Nonetheless, for Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the series, a pretty good selection of nuts and bolts has been assembled, perhaps the best yet. Director Mike Newell, about whom I was (wrongly) dismissive in my review of HP3, in fact turns out to have been a solid choice: if not a change of oil, exactly, then a reinvigorating new fanbelt. Newell is not an artist - which fits the franchise well - but he is a very able storyteller, capable of spinning yarns both light (Four Weddings & A Funeral) and dark (Donnie Brasco). HP4, accordingly, has more of a sense of shaped narrative, rather than the scenes-ripped-literally-from-the-book approach that made parts one to three such a chore in places to sit through.

This one actually has two competing strands: an inner story and an outer story. The outer story is the eminently widescreen business of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which should already be familiar to lovers of the books. The inner story provides the more compelling business: the three lead characters discovering their hormones and coming this close to breaking up forever. Hermione (Emma Watson) is seen in several sequences with a new (platonic) girlfriend, never introduced to the rest of us, while Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have a full-on teenage-boy tiff. Ron tells Harry to "piss off" (which is shocking in the context); Harry calls Ron "a foul git" (which is very Harry).

The inner story does rather get in the way of the outer story - the whizzy peril of the Tournament gets forgotten about as everyone fusses around in preparation for a ball - but yields one of the film's most enjoyable sequences. Here, Harry and Ron, best of friends again, sit grumpily in a corner of the Hogwarts' ballroom, ignoring their dates' pleas for a dance - moments of screen time that work not just because they conjure up memories of school discos past, but because the scene forms something of a summation of the Potter experience for non-devotees such as myself: sitting on the sidelines, wondering quite what all the fuss is about, while everybody else seems to be having a high old time.

This is the first Potter movie to find time and space for those sidelines; the previous three, frantically attempting to get every last page of Rowling into a film lasting under three hours, were all clutter and action, all front and centre. Of the new performers aboard, to which we might ungallantly but not inaccurately refer as "the bolts", we have Brendan Gleeson as scarred professor "Mad Eye" Moodie, swigging from a hipflask beneath the mechanism that gives him that nickname; Miranda Richardson as a gossip columnist, wearing apparently the same hairstyle as she did for Newell in Dance with a Stranger; and The Constant Gardener (or English Patient) himself, Mr. Ralph Fiennes, who turns up as the devilish Lord Voldemort in an intense last-reel that dares to recall Lynch at one point, as Timothy Spall's henchman receives his orders from a creature that resembles the grinning homunculus of Lost Highway.

The franchise certainly feels a lot more grown-up with Newell in charge, opening with skulls and snakes, closing on death in a graveyard and - between these two markers - throwing in the series' first swearwords and topless scene (Harry, not Hermione). This may come to be considered as the Potter films' The Empire Strikes Back, and the efficient yet self-effacing Newell its Irvin Kirshner. The hope is that Goblet's inevitable worldwide success will encourage the producers to select for film five a director capable of running with this darkness, rather than resorting to Ewoks, or whatever the Potterworld equivalent is. (Where is Dobby the House Elf these days, anyway?)

To this end, I hereby submit for their consideration a list of directors who might have fun with the Order of the Phoenix: Larry Clark (it's not just Harry who goes topless, and it's not just topless); Quentin Tarantino (Dumbledore goes medieval on Voldemort's ass); Richard Linklater (he has ties to Warner Bros., and proved he could direct kids in both School of Rock and Bad News Bears); Gaspar Noe (tell the story backwards, for once, to shake it out of its rut); Whit Stillman or Hal Hartley (because they need the work); Danny Boyle (because he proved, with Millions, that it is possible to retain a distinctive sensibility while making a family entertainment that appeals to a wide audience). Failing that, turn the whole franchise over to Nick Park and do the remaining books as claymation: Harry Potter's Wheel, anyone?

(December 2005)

In retrospect, the author would like to apologise for that last pun.

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"

One of the potentially interesting aspects of the Harry Potter franchise is that, as the series goes on and its central characters age, the target audience will get older, allowing for the possibility that subsequent instalments might come in at a 12A or even 15 rating. The latest film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, has been directed by Alfonso Cuaron, a past master of magical fairytales (Warner Bros.' A Little Princess), literary adaptation (Great Expectations) and horny teen pics (Y Tu Mama Tambien). Cuaron employs a notably darker visual palette here, taking his cue from the name of the deranged wizard who haunts the series' third entry: Azkaban is, one is led to expect, the film where the Potter franchise gets Sirius and goes Black.

This is a shadier film than Chris Columbus's first two - its skies are overcast for the most part, its title rendered in cold, steely silver rather than the golds that lit up the screen previously - and in a world of baffling climate change (all sun-dappled fields one day, thick snow the next) which unintentionally comes to represent Warner's uncertainty over this latest instalment's release date (previous Potter films were Christmas releases), Cuaron's eye for the natural world is self-evidently stronger than his predecessor's. Frustratingly, though, the formula remains much the same: no one director is ever going to alter this lucrative a brand, and Azkaban duly turns out to be the sort of film that will prove, if not the death of auteurism exactly, then a perversion of it, where the author of the original source material (J.K. Rowling) holds greater sway than the talented screenwriter and director adapting it, and where the latter two have been paid too much for their services to do anything other than assemble the required pieces in the prescribed order. The next film in the series, based on the longest of the published books to date, is to be directed by the defiantly unspectacular Mike Newell, so don't go expecting any changes there.

Of course, none of this matters if you just want your movies to do a job, to be, well, functional: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will play in a lot of cinemas, where it will make a lot of money for some already very rich people. On the plus side, Steve Kloves' screenplay is a little leaner - there's less Quidditch (the literary world's most pointless sport) in a rain-affected match - and this film comes in a good quarter of an hour shorter than the previous two. (It could have been shorter still: a time-travel device means the final half-hour, like much of the rest of the film, comes to repeat on itself - a side effect of mass consumption, I guess.) The new additions to the Hogwarts faculty (Emma Thompson, David Thewlis and Michael Gambon, replacing Richard Harris as Dumbledore) are welcome. And the opening scenes - mired in suburbia once again, with Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw as the step-parents from hell - play even more like a kiddie version of Abigail's Party; this time round, we get Pam Ferris as Griffiths's bloated sister, and Jim Davidson's Generation Game on the telly as the ultimate signifier of bourgeois hell. (How on earth did the American Kloves and the Mexican Cuaron come up with that?, you wonder.)

The Mike Leighisms apparent in both casting and characterisation are underlined during a showdown late in the film that puts three of Leigh's leading men in the same room, almost too great a coincidence for a film as impersonal as this to handle. Like the 007 films, Potter is now so established as a profit-turning exercise, with a hero so essentially untouchable, that the mind drifts off during the slower patches to consider what even more individual filmmakers, such as Leigh, might make of the assignment: one clings to the vain hope there might yet be an improved, hand-held Dogme movie somewhere in future Potter books. Azkaban's one stand-out feature is that while Emma Watson's Hermione and Rupert Grint's Ron haven't developed much beyond their stock roles of posh bird and proletarian oik, the central character is being increasingly shaped by actor Daniel Radcliffe's own personality.

Out of his school uniform, this Potter sports a haircut, the leisurewear and a series of temper tantrums that wouldn't appear too far out of place adorning the lead singer of an indie band beginning with the definite article. (Further credentials are supplied by an early cameo from - I kid you not - Ian Brown of The Stone Roses, whose presence momentarily threatens to turn The Leaky Cauldron into a wizardly equivalent of the Met Bar.) The good news for Rowling, Warner Bros., any future directors of these films, and their accountants is that - even as the formula around him has settled into hat as old as the one on Dumbledore's head - Harry Potter just got cool; as cool as the teenage hero of a multi-million dollar corporate franchise based on a best-selling childrens' books can get, at any rate.

(May 2004)

Saturday, 13 November 2010

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"

Spare a thought for the traditional British pantomime. For centuries, it used to be the case that parents and guardians would take their offspring to their local theatres around this time of year to spend between two-and-a-half and three hours watching jobbing actors exchange harmless innuendo in between bouts of knockabout action designed to pull out the latter-day relevance in timeless, classic texts. The pantomime has been under threat for several years now, with audience numbers falling and theatres closing, impresarios being quick to put the blame on "more sophisticated forms of entertainment", reasoning the youngsters would rather play Super RoboDino Smack 'Em Up 2 on their Cubic Playbox than spend their afternoons shouting "He's behind you" and "Oh no, he isn't" at fading TV soap stars throwing M&Ms into a crowd.

Now that the Hollywood holiday-season blockbuster has become all-consuming, I can't help feeling the essence of pantomime has been sublimated into film - more specifically, those films released during the months of November and December in a bid to close all non-movie theatres down. This spirit finds its purest expression in cinemas this year: the harmless innuendo (which always did go over the heads of the younger audience) in the PG-13 rated Bond; the knockabout action (which always could get a little intense) into the new Lord of the Rings; the tendency towards an ensemble of familiar faces giving larger-than-life performances, meanwhile, now finds its way into the latest Harry Potter film.

For centuries, the basic formula of pantomime - the schtick that makes it tick - has gone unaltered. It's been amusing, over the past few weeks, to hear cutting-edge Hollywood filmmakers - chiefly those involved in the Bond film - talking like old panto hands, asserting it would be folly indeed to tamper with an established formula, and that the consequences of any such tampering (aside, of course, from a likely dip in box-office takings) would be unthinkable. Series helmsman Chris Columbus, similarly, daren't step off this party line; that's something you sense in every frame of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which - for its first half at least - plays almost identically to his debut Potter outing. There's the escape from dreary suburbia; a bit of business with the Hogwarts Express train; an early class in which class idiot Neville (Matthew Lewis) will make a fool of himself; a lengthy sequence of abstruse game Quidditch; and eventually - very eventually, over an hour into the film - some semblance of a plot coming together.

Still, maybe this familiarity is comforting, and it's not difficult to see why these books - and these films - speak volumes to children. In a panto like Jack and the Beanstalk, poverty is conveyed in terms of having to sell your last cow for a handful of magic beans. The legend of J.K. Rowling is that she wrote the first few books while living as a single mother in a run-down tower block. Whether or not this is true, it shows through in the abuse Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley gets for his second-hand wand and textbooks (something that's bound to strike a chord with anyone who's ever been envious of their classmates' trainers) and in the way Hermione (Emma Watson) gets labelled with the worst slur imaginable in this world - "mudblood", meaning of mixed (i.e. non-wizardly, and here subsequently lesser) descent. Despite the Warner Bros. production values, these remain films about classes, in every regard.

Last year, I made idle speculation about the fate of the franchise's juvenile leads four or five films down the line, by the time they should logically be reaching puberty. There's certainly a sense of the characters growing up here. Hermione develops a crush on new teacher Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh); Harry gets in a sticky situation on account of Ron's sweaty palms; and, indeed, the entire action element of the film is kickstarted when the two boys steal away in a car, staying out all night, and risking the wrath of Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters). The kids give more or less the same performances: though Watson has wisely toned down the stage-school precociousness, Grint continues to gurn and grimace wherever possible. These, though, are Radcliffe's films: if he didn't know it before the multi-million dollar success of Philosopher's Stone, he does now, and he shows all the signs of a young actor seizing a golden opportunity with both hands.

The adult performers fare less well, too often reduced to spectators in the plot or relegated behind special effects; certain players display a tendency to do all their acting with the lower part of their face, adopting either a Blair-like rictus grin (Branagh) or the pained expression of someone who's spent several hours in the dentist's chair (Alan Rickman), which perhaps reflects a subconscious discomfort at having lines in their mouths that every parent in the audience will already have spoken aloud at least once. Few viewers will have played Hamlet - as Branagh has - but the part of Lockhart is being played out in bedrooms across the land every night just before bedtime. That said, the most dramatically satisfying scene in the movie is the one where Lockhart and Snape stage a spells demonstration in Hogwarts Great Hall, which begins in comic mode but shades into something else entirely as Harry discovers his dark side.

Still the most amazing feature of the first two HP films is the involvement of writer Steve Kloves, best known for the minimalist atmospherics of his directorial credits, and The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone. Both Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets are simply too long, and there's a reason for their being too long that goes beyond the need for a better script editor. A few examples of this latest film's excesses: Hermione turning into a cat is a reasonable sight gag, but it doesn't affect the plotting and slows the action down just when we want it to pick up a bit; Quidditch still makes no sense as a sport, because once again, the putting of balls through hoops turns out to be an irrelevance when Harry makes a single catch to win a game; and there's a scene in a giant spider's lair that jazzes up some exposition in the script, but feels as though the effects house has intervened to try and use up a few of the CG arachnids left over from Eight-Legged Freaks. And after all the mayhem, the plot is resolved arbitrarily.

The reason these films are too long - and there's every reason the remaining films in the series will be just as long again - is that millions of children around the world have now read the Potter books, and every last one of them will have their own favourite moment. If it's a no-risk proposition to adapt for the screen the world's biggest-selling series of children's books, it's then even less of a risk to adapt everything those books contain. The executive's fear has to be: if you leave out one child's favourite bit, they won't come back for the remaining movies. That's why there's ultimately something a bit cowardly about Warner Bros' approach to the Potter films to date, and why we're back to Hermione turning into a cat again: the effect is intended as magical, but entails a bit too much pussy-footing around. It'd be a hard heart that couldn't find something positive to say about such a handsomely mounted, lovingly produced and (risk be damned) comprehensive adaptation: as in Philosopher's Stone, the cast has been stocked in sufficient depth to keep adults interested, and the odd flash of true movie wizardry will doubtless keep youngsters enthralled. Just take them to a pantomime afterwards. If you can find one.

(December 2002)

[And yes, I can appreciate the irony of taking eight whole paragraphs to denounce a film for being too bloody long; blame the exuberance of youth.]

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone"

In a year in which the American summer blockbusters were exceptionally poor, it's left to British- and Antipodean-flavoured films to vie for the title of 2001's best event movie. If you haven't heard a thing about the Harry Potter film in the last twelve months, you're either the last bastion holding out against the forces of globalisation, or you've been locked away in post-production on the Lord of the Rings movie. Being perhaps the best-known fictional character in the Western world at the moment, this big-screen adaptation of the opening chapter in J.K. Rowling's saga of the boy with the Zorro scar on his forehead starts out with a suggestion of what makes Potter such an icon of the modern age: that he is, right from the off, a celebrity.

The opening hour of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in which friendly giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) plucks wizarding boy wonder Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) from suburban hell, is really all about what it means to have one hundred heads turn your way whenever you enter a room or, in scenes that play like premonitions of life in Rowling's flat today, have a gazillion letters demanding your presence flood your letterbox, or have people breaking down your doors to find out the real story behind the boy who brings magic to the lives of all those with whom he comes into contact. Once Potter enrols at Hogwarts Academy, the film is more interested in what it might be like to be a big fish in a small pond, as Harry, known to all his teachers as a major talent, is picked on by his rivals and finds it hard to live up to what's expected of him - because, as we all know, it's tough being a celebrity.

One of the joys of the film is this recreation of British private school education, for which we presumably have Rowling, and not American director Chris Columbus or screenwriter Steve Kloves, to thank. Next to everything within the Hogwarts universe - from Alan Rickman's science-lab tyrant and the ancient house system to what happens when someone falls off their broomstick or a troll (the film's equivalent of a cigarette fire) breaks out in the girls' bathroom - feels perfectly realised. The glaring exception is Quidditch, the high-speed ball game that takes place on and over a field round the back of the Academy, which is exactly the sort of arcane sport encouraged by those in private education, but demonstrates that Rowling, for all her grasp of character and story, has little real feeling for the rules of a game: why would a Quidditch player bother to throw balls through hoops, when they could win a match with a single catch?

With its cool effects for the kids and funny, eccentric character turns for accompanying adults, Rowling, Columbus and Kloves have stocked the film in depth, both a strength and a weakness. This world folds back in on itself, as Harry and best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) consume the sweets and trading cards that will no doubt make up the bulk of the Potter merchandise, coming soon to a store near you, but at least one of the executive producers looks to have held out for an emphasis on the expressiveness of human faces over CGI, on character development above marketing opportunities.

That said, this is a good blockbuster rather than a great one, stuck as it is with a wildly erratic selection of juvenile performances. Radcliffe underplays the role successfully, and while Grint is there mainly to provide salt-of-the-earth contrast to the lead's supernatural self-possession, too often he seems to be auditioning for the Jason Flemyng role in another Guy Ritchie about public-school geezers. Worse still is Emma Watson's Hermione, a character - and a performance - so shrill and arch as to be downright embarrassing at times. All of them have their moments, but the final forty minutes spent in their company, during which the plot signalled by the title eventually kicks in, do feel a little like being kept behind after class for a reason one can't quite fathom. Still, it'll be interesting when we get to the seventh Potter film, by which time Hermione will have become a preening sixth-form sexpot, Ron will be suffering from his first bad spell of acne, and Harry will be seeing who knows what "desperate desires" in the fabled Mirror of Erised.

(October 2001)

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of November 5-7, 2010:

1 (new) Due Date (15) [above]
2 (new) Jackass 3D (18) **
3 (2) Despicable Me (U)
4 (1) Saw 3D (18)
5 (3) Paranormal Activity 2 (15)
6 (4) RED (12A)
7 (5) The Social Network (12A) ****
8 (new) Let Me In (15) **
9 (new) Another Year (12A) ****
10 (6) Burke & Hare (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. A Day in the Life - Four Portraits of Post-War Britain
2. Another Year
3. We Are What We Are
4. My Afternoons with Margueritte
5. Skyline


Top Ten DVD rentals
:

1 (1) Iron Man 2 (12) ***
2 (4) The Blind Side (12) **
3 (2) Killers (12) **
4 (3) Brooklyn's Finest (18) **
5 (8) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (12) **
6 (5) The Ghost (15) **
7 (new) Heartbreaker (PG) **
8 (new) Disney's A Christmas Carol (PG) **
9 (6) Black Death (15) ***
10 (10) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) ***

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
1. A Town Called Panic
2. How to Train Your Dragon
3. Wild Grass
4. Collapse
5. The Karate Kid


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. In the Line of Fire (Thursday, five, 9pm)
2. The Dirty Dozen (Saturday, five, 5.45pm)
3. The Spiral Staircase (Friday, BBC2, 1am)
4. Eye of the Needle (Wednesday, C4, 12.50pm)
5. A Dirty Shame (Thursday, C4, 2.30am)

Friday, 12 November 2010

"You Again" (The Scotsman 12/11/10)

You Again (PG) **
Directed by: Andy Fickman
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver


Disney is running out of starlets: with Lindsay Lohan off-limits and Demi Lovato out of action, You Again provides a showcase for Kristen Bell, the brittle blonde whose TV work (Veronica Mars, Party Down) remains preferable to her movie choices (When in Rome, Couples Retreat). Here, Bell’s PR hotshot Marni is less than happy to discover her brother is poised to wed the cheerleader (Odette Yustman) who made her high-school years hell; the potential social nightmare is only redoubled by the fact the happy couple’s respective mothers (Curtis, Weaver) themselves have unfinished business from prom night.

The weird, 80s-worshipping times may mean we’re in for a rash of these
extended family-values sitcoms, and this one’s sitcommier than most, with bits for ex-Golden Girl Betty White as a horny grandma, hugs and healing crowding out actual laughs, and notionally comic dance-offs – to Britney’s “Toxic” and (inevitably) “We Are Family” – that prove as cringeworthy as anything witnessed at any real-life reception. All soft furnishings and gleaming teeth, it’s an inoffensive proposition, made for in-flight viewing – but anybody expecting another Freaky Friday or Mean Girls will be sorely disappointed by the lack of fizz and bite.

"Skyline" (The Scotsman 12/11/10)


Skyline (15) ***
Directed by: The Brothers Strause
Starring: Eric Balfour, Donald Faison, Scottie Thompson

The pre-publicity promised vast, Independence Day-like spectacle, but this reined-in alien-invasion feature instead appears a canny piece of bet-hedging from the Strause brothers, being a functional B-movie that might someday be retooled as a pilot for the SyFy channel. A group of well-to-do twentysomethings gathered in L.A. to discuss a business venture are distracted from their margaritas by bright blue lights descending from the sky – an advance party, it turns out, for alien crafts who come to hoover up unfortunate earthlings, and unleash several kinds of tenticular mayhem.

The look owes much to Cloverfield and District 9, but the Strauses make nice use of the between-seasons TV talent available to them. Scrubs Faison is the cocky producer who finds his Ferrari no help in the circumstances; 24’s Balfour the out-of-towner facing up to increased responsibilities; best of all, Dexter’s foursquare David Zayas is the concierge who comes through whenever the kids are in danger of losing their heads. There’s no time for subtexts – the aliens, like the film, could do with a mite more personality – but it has a couple of genuine surprises, and few pretensions about delivering an efficient, popcorn-worthy entertainment.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Support: "A Day in the Life..."

In one of those archival projects you just hope won't be rendered impossible in future years by proposed funding cuts, the BFI has turned its focus upon the unfashionable yet hugely rewarding subject of British post-War documentary - in particular those (often sponsored) shorts that played alongside theatrical releases of the era, and contributed so much to our sense of national identity. Launching a season of retrospectives and talks is the touring programme A Day In The Life - Four Portraits of Post-War Britain, a deeply evocative compilation of four such shorts that established the writer-director John Krish as among the period's very best chroniclers of domestic life, travelling as they do across the length and breadth of the country to survey the processes of change at work - and to highlight where further change may be required.

1953's The Elephant Will Never Forget, typical supporting fare in most respects, marks the final running of trams through London's Elephant and Castle interchange - a fond farewell, set to communal singalongs from the Lewisham Darby and Joan Club. The unexpectedly moving They Took Us to the Sea, from 1961, follows a group of Birmingham pre-teens undertaking an NSPCC-backed outing by train to Weston-super-Mare (a.k.a. "Midlands-on-Sea"). The kids' own voiceover highlights their own particular preoccupations ("We had fish-and-chips for dinner; a lot of us just had the chips"), while Krish and editor Fergus McDonnell contrast the breezy coast with the bombsites then still prevalent in Britain's inner cities; we're struck by just how utopian Weston could seem at the time - and that these under-privileged youngsters would eventually grow into a leisured class for whom holidays by the sea would be not a treat, but a regular occurrence.

1962's Our School, sponsored by the NUT, offers several hours in the life of one of the country's exciting new secondary moderns: between the wall bars and misplaced apostrophes, we observe the daring introduction of a Doris Lessing short story to the syllabus ("It teaches us you can't crush man's spirit"). It's of note for the slightly stiff spontaneity of its teaching sequences: the show is comprehensively stolen by one cheeky tyke who gets excited at his history mistress's fleeting reference to dancing girls. The topper, though, is 1964's I Think They Call Him John, which reveals a public-service filmmaker at the very peak of his abilities. The most formally daring of the four shorts, it follows widower John Ronson ("old miner, old soldier, old gardener, old age pensioner," as Victor Spinetti's narration has it) as he goes about a limited existence in a poky council flat, to long stretches of silence: he puts the budgie out, he answers a letter from a sister living in America, he prepares a modest lunch, he nods off at the table.

It's a masterpiece of its kind: utterly unpatronising about the plight of the elderly, with a punchline (involving a still-extant television favourite) every bit as devastating as one might find in a Douglas Sirk tearjerker. And it still functions as conscience-pricker, too: if the fate of this old soldier doesn't get you to shell out for a Remembrance poppy, nothing will. This final short - slowing itself to John's own pace, asking us to shuffle a mile in his carpet slippers - is exceptional in more ways than one: elsewhere in the compilation, the use of music and editing is remarkably sharp and clipped, the films forever in a hurry to get where they're going - filled with a hope and optimism (that, perhaps, of a nation entering a period of rebuilding and prosperity) that our present administrators might do well to take note of. As the daytrippers file past the camera to board the train back to Snow Hill, or John Ronson settles into his flat for the evening, we ask the same questions of Krish's subjects as we might do today observing the occupants of pushchairs parked outside a child-benefit office, or those hustling and bustling to secure themselves a place at university: whatever will become of them?

A Day in the Life - Four Portraits of Post-War Britain opens in selected cinemas tomorrow.